A new book traces the history of boy bands, the “larger than life” pop phenomenon

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“If history is written by winners,” says author Maria Sherman, “music history is written by rock critics, and they usually don’t get along with boy groups.”

For reasons she explores in her new book, Larger Than Life: A History Of Boy Bands From NKOTB To BTS, Sherman says boy bands don’t get the same respect as other musical groups, especially their rock peers.

“I think a lot of it is that internalized perception of what’s ‘good’, and that’s the rock songwriter – and that’s not what boy bands are,” he says. she. “I touch on the idea of ​​Beatlemania quite a bit in the book because one of the main characteristics of boy groups is that they have this frenzied fanaticism – but I think really sweet – about them. But if you call the Beates a bunch of boys, people get really dismissive about it. They really don’t like it, I found out. “

Sherman was already a music critic when she fell in love with One Direction, and she says the band’s songs helped her appreciate new ways of thinking about music. NPR’s Ari Shapiro talks to Maria Sherman about challenging preconceived notions of authenticity in music, how race affects the marketing of pop groups and the joy and freedom of a boy’s pop song band. Listen in the audio player above and read on for the highlights of their conversation.

Interview highlights

On double standards on boy bands and authenticity

To think about boy groups critically, you can’t really adhere to the same value systems where authenticity through songwriting is the best or most interesting thing an artist can be. You have to place that value of authenticity elsewhere, and that would be the connection that listeners have with the music itself. You can make the same argument that Berry Gordy’s Motown was based on the “factory system” which is often used when talking about boy groups. We enjoy this music: I don’t think you will hear anyone talk about the Jackson 5 formula. People really like this music because it makes them happy. The same can and should be said about One Direction and New Kids on the Block and K-pop.

Along the way, boy bands engage in black music while excluding black artists

Boy band music, like all popular music, is grounded in black music – it’s kind of a common thread throughout the history of popular music. There’s a reason why Backstreet Boys’ “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” sounds exactly like Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road”. It is quite obvious. And yet, for a lot of people, myself included, I don’t really see Boyz II Men as a boy band. There are various reasons for this, but the most obvious is that it was not presented as a boy group and a big part of the identity of a boy group is how it is marketed and sold. to you. The Boyz II Men are considered a sexier R&B male vocal group and the Backstreet Boys are a bit more innocent. There is something about this image of chastity, even though it hints at something from PG-13. I also think that maybe because black and brown youth are generally sexualized at a younger age, they don’t have the same privileges as a bunch of white boys. And that’s why you can get the Backstreet Boys, who are roughly the same age, to do something similar, but sold to tweens, while Boyz II Men is aimed at a more mature audience.

When Maria Sherman fell in love with boy bands

I often say that One Direction has ruined my life, and I say it in the healthiest way. I kind of wish there was a more theatrical and dramatic achievement, but the reality is it was late at night and I shot “What Makes You Beautiful”, One Direction’s first solo single in 2011. That first moment when you hear those crisp guitars, it gave me a feeling of joy that I immediately considered young. It was like butterflies in my stomach, like I had a crush on a song – and not those boys, necessarily, but what that sort of symbolized: that sheer release of serotonin, the complete lack of embarrassment, just fun. I think there is something really beautiful going on when you find this group of boys that really makes you appreciate that appreciation. It almost sounds like a political rejection of the pre-existing limitations of what is considered believable or cool. It’s like, “I can be free from pretense for two minutes and 43 seconds, or however long an average pop song is, and really give in to the joy. [Copyright 2020 NPR]


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